Sunday, September 7, 2014

BACKYARD BLOOMS

Chicory, or blue sailor.

Jewelweed, or touch-me-not.

The images you see here were taken around the cottage, within a few hundred feet of the front door. None are what you'd call stunning, not even close. Just shots of common wildflowers—or in some cases, weeds, if you prefer—I liked well enough to keep. A sort of botanical/photographic version of "when you're not with the one you love…love the one you're with."

Alas, I've managed only a couple of very brief photo rambles lately—one to a favorite prairie where I'd hoped to photograph butterflies, various blooms, and maybe a few birds, and the other to a nearby pond for dragonflies. Both were total busts. 

Ironweed.
The 100-acre prairie—and another, slightly smaller prairie patch a few miles away—proved all but devoid of butterflies; I saw only one monarch and a rather bedraggled tiger swallowtail fluttering over the bluestem and coneflowers. Yet the morning was sunny, warm, and windless. To my way of thinking, there should have been dozens of different butterflies about busily nectaring.

Wingstem.
A few mornings later, the usually reliable pond turned out equally lacking in dragonflies. Normally, the airspace above the cattail fringes, boggy corners, and stands of marsh grass is working alive with these incredible aerial hunters, their whirring wings glittering, shimmering like jewels in the bright light. Again the day was sultry, sunlit, calm. What should have been perfect weather. But I saw no more than a handful of dragonflies, mostly blue dashers, during a full circuit of the 2-acre pond.

Self-heal, or heal-all.
What was going on? The only explanation I can think of would be the fact that until three or so weeks ago, our "summer" weather was more like mid-spring—daytime highs in the upper 60s˚F, nights low-50s˚. Not ideal butterfly or dragonfly weather. But that's only a guess. 

All I know is they weren't there…why remains a mystery.

  
      

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

UPS AND DOWNS

Summer has finally decided to act like summer here along the river, serving up southwestern-Ohio's usual seasonal fare of 90˚F heat and 90% humidity. Hot, sticky, and decidedly unpleasant. Coincidentally, work on the cottage's rooms redo has slowed considerably—though heat and personal lethargy are only partly to blame. Unexpected events have played their part.

"Life has its ups and downs," my Aunt Grace liked  to say. And so it does.

DOWN: About three weeks ago, during or just after a meal at a local restaurant, my cell phone disappeared. Lost? Stolen? I'm not sure. What I do know is that nowadays cell phones are more than mere convenient and unobtrusively portable electronic devices for making and receiving calls. They've become a key part of our daily routines—a depended-upon tool for doing everything from checking and sending e-mail and text messages, to keeping up on news, weather, and daily schedules. Plus much, much more!

Losing your phone is like losing a highly informed and dependably helpful assistant. You immediately feel violated, isolated, and handicapped, not to mention alarmed by those security issues which must be implemented ASAP, and thoroughly hacked off at the time, frustration, and dollars any fix is bound to entail. There's also the nagging suspicion your current situation is due, in very large part, to stupidity, senility, or negligence…possibly all three.

UP: I've replaced my iPhone 5 with the iPhone 5s, and dressed it out with a new protective case—both of which are even better than the versions they replaced.

DOWN: Just over two weeks ago, Moon-the-Dog suffered some sort of problem during the night, likely either a stroke or heart incident. I've watched and worried for some time as my beloved companion's health and energy gradually failed—and understood that inevitably, our time together was drawing to its mortal close. She is 16 years old. Time catches all of us in the end.

But such head knowledge does nothing to ease the pain and burden of your breaking heart. And awaking to see her in bad shape—hurting, dazed, frightened—was almost more than I could bear.

Love always comes with responsibility. Always. In making decisions for those we love, we want to do the right thing. To be compassionate, courageous, honorable. To avoid acting from a stance of selfishness and cowardice. But how to know which is which? My father used to tell me that whenever I was faced with multiple choices, I should always look closely at the most difficult one of the lot. "The hardest choice is usually the right one, Sonny," he'd say—advice I've found to be true time and time again. Making the right choice is sometimes so very, very hard it tears us apart. But our pain does not negate that moral obligation, love's responsibility.

Myladylove and I talked. And later that morning, I made the arrangements. Set an appointment that afternoon at a veterinarian's office just down the road. Called a friend to come over and help me make my precious old dog's final ride as easy and comfortable as possible.

But as we went out the door to his van, I had a change of heart. I simply couldn't do it, couldn't go through with what, by all signs, was the responsible thing to do.

Was I being selfish? Cowardly? Maybe. I honestly don't know. But it just didn't feel right. Not the right time. So ten minutes from that final irreversible act, I called the vet and told them I was canceling my appointment. At least for that day. Then I called Myladylove and said I'd decided to give Moon the night.

"Are you sure?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, "I am," because my sense of relief was far greater than any feelings of guilt. 

UP: We fed Moon by hand. She had real problems trying to get up. Walking was slow, shaky, obviously painful. She panted and gasped with every breath. But we've regularly coaxed, praised, and encouraged her out regularly to do her business. And though it's been slow, she's gradually improved. Almost miraculously so! She's now back to her old self, eating well, possibly walking and acting better than she has in a month. And I thank God I listened to that still, soft voice inside whispering to wait, to not give up, that time and season had not yet reached their end point.

At her age and given whatever occurred, I know this will only be a temporary reprieve. Time will eventually win. Today, tomorrow, next week, next month. But I'll take whatever extension we're granted…and I believe Moon will, too. Our reality is here and now. And words simply can't convey my heartfelt gratitude for such a blessing.
     

Friday, August 8, 2014

HOPE GROWS…

A couple of days ago I spotted a queen snake twined among the grapevines atop the rail of the narrow deck which overlooks the river. While some folks probably wouldn't view a snake on their porch with much joy, for me this was both a pleasure as well as a welcome bit of good news.

Queen snakes are small members of the water snake family, quite docile in nature, and similar in appearance to garter snakes, to which they're closely related. They feed almost exclusively on crayfish, and are found only along rocky or graveled-bottom streams boasting very clean water. So having queen snakes around means your river or creek is in good shape, waterwise. Alas, in some states, an ever-increasing lack of this necessary high-quality watershed habitat has now caused queen snakes to be added to their "threatened" or "endangered" species lists.

I feel honored to have these little snakes as fellow riverbank residents. Yet better still, soon after moving here, I realized the local queen snakes's winter hibernaculum was apparently within the jumble of limestone rocks upon which the cottage is built. I know this because come the first warm days of early spring, upwards of two dozen queen snakes of all sizes suddenly appear on this southwest-facing deck, basking in the sun of the burgeoning season. After a few weeks of this group sunning, they begin to disperse—though on any given morning throughout the summer I can usually spot two or three queens ensconced amid the now-leafed-out grapevine.

Like clockwork this spring, as the weather warmed back in April, they reappeared—a dozen queens, from small to large, reveling in the welcome sun. 

Then…disaster! A huge winter front moved in. Within a few hours, temperatures in the low-70s˚F plummeted to well below freezing. Plus rain, sleet, snow—followed by a hard, freeze-up which endured for several weeks. I worried about my resident queen snakes. Had they made it back to their shelter in time? Would the population be wiped out? And as the arctic weather continued to linger, the ground remaining hard as iron, would they be able to survive such a long and unseasonable turn-around?

I feared the worst. And I didn't see a queen snake again until a few weeks ago when I found a single, foot-long, pencil-thin individual atop the vine-shaded rail. I've spotted what I'm certain is the same small snake on two subsequent occasions. But the snake in the photo above is considerably larger—in fact, at something like two feet long, about as big as queen snakes get. 

So, two survivors. Not enough to keep a population viable, but enough to give me hope that maybe a few others also escaped the killing cold.   


Thursday, August 7, 2014

SUMMER? REALLY?

Ahh-h, summer. Those lazy, crazy, hazy days of sunshine and cicadas whirring amid yonder treetops, when sweet corn, half-runner beans, and genuine tomatoes grace the table…and come early morn, when only the foolhardy venture outside without first donning sufficient outerwear to ward off frostbite!

Yup. I've checked both calendar and almanac. It is indeed officially summer here in Ohio. Except it feels more like early spring or late winter. At least when I first get up. This morning the wall thermometer in the hallway read 60˚F! Brr-r-r-r-r! And that was the highest reading of any morning in several weeks. On more than one occasion the temperature has been as low as 51˚F! Cold enough to put frosting on your cornflakes!

Now I'm admittedly no lover of hot weather. Summer is usually my least favorite of the four seasons. But I do look forward to taking my mug of coffee and whatever I'm having for breakfast and enjoying my meal outside, on the deck, where I can bask in the rising sun, watch hummingbirds fuss over the bergamot, and listen to the nearby river murmur its way down the riffle. This is a wonderful time of day—the best time, I think, and certainly my favorite. A quiet, gentle period, filled with interesting sights and sounds and small dramas, yet sweet and relaxing—the perfect way to begin a new day.

Usually. But a summer morning loses much of its seasonal ambiance when you're bundled in multiple layers, still shivering, and trying to remember where you stored your gloves. Moreover, I've not yet heard a single ratchety cicada.   

How can you have a proper Buckeye summer without singing cicadas? And really, should parkas be de rigueur seasonal attire for summer in Ohio? I think not. And so, I make what, for me, is a heretofore unheard complaint: this summer is just too cold!   

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

OLD TRICKS

Growing up, I often watched my father at his woodworking in the basement. He might be fashioning a piano bench, cabinet drawer, birdhouse, or picture frame. Sometimes it was a piece of fine furniture, though it might just as easily be a more utilitarian item such as a kitchen stool, bookcase, storage box—or occasionally a toy for his wide-eyed offspring.  

Before I was born, he'd turned bowls and dishes on a lathe, and built a pair of exquisite guitars which the legendary Merle Travis played several times on his live radio show from Cincinnati. He also built our house.

Dad could make anything out of wood. An artist rather than craftsman, wood seemed to respond to his master's touch. Though he began his working career as a teacher, about the time I came along he chucked the classroom for carpentry and became a freelance "finish carpenter." His reputation for quality work quickly grew, and he was soon in demand to finish the finest new homes and remodels around. 

In case you don't know, there are two sorts of carpenters. "Rough" carpenters do the basic understructure work—things like framing, sheathing, sub-flooring. When the house is up and basically built, the "finish" carpenter comes in and, well, finishes the job—building jambs and hanging doors, sometimes building and hanging kitchen cabinets, building stairs and installing rails and banisters, running casings and moldings and trim. All the visible wood details that help to showcase a home. 

Nowadays a lot of this work from both camps has been subdivided into specialities—framers, roofers, floorers, cabinet installers, etc. But in Dad's time—and still on the "best of the best" custom homes where details matter and nothing is stock or store-bought, but handcrafted from the the finest materials, usually on site—talented woodworking was appreciated and demanded. Artisan carpenters were called on to apply their skills.

I possess none of those skills. Competent mediocrity is the best I can manage. But I am my father's son…and I didn't watch him at his workbench, or later, under his watchful eye, work occasionally as his assistant on various jobs, and fail to learn at least a few tricks of the woodworking trade. By osmosis, if not actually paying attention. 

Now, as I'm working on the different aspects of this whole-cottage remodel, a few of those nearly-forgotten tricks have suddenly rematerialized. Old, almost forgotten friends, again come a'knocking at the door. Like how, when working with oak trim, in order to prevent splitting, you first moisten or otherwise lubricate the nail before driving it in. I've also remembered how to lift a bit of wainscoting to the snap-line for nailing when working single-handed. Or the way to properly back-cut crown moulding, make mitre cuts align perfectly, scribe a board to a wall, or drop a plumbline from ceiling to floor. 

These and other handy little carpentry tidbits have been floating up from the dark recesses of my mental files like bobbing apples at an old-fashioned Thanksgiving party. And I appreciate their help and worth, for they're just as valid and useful today as ever—plus I'm rather pleased to know they weren't forgotten completely, but only temporarily mislaid. 

Yet they've also done something more than merely make my work easier and better…they've transported me back in time—given me brief, but astonishingly real moments with my father. Flashbacks so tangible and true that I not only see him in the finest detail, but hear his voice and even catch his scent. For a few heartfelt seconds we're palpably reunited—a gift, a blessing, inexplicable, absolute.

I wouldn't trade these moments for anything.   

Monday, July 21, 2014

TO EACH THEIR OWN

After a week-and-a-half of deliciously cool, naturally air-conditioned weather, courtesy of what local meteorologists called a "polar vortex," temps are heading back up to a more seasonable range. Today's high should reach the upper 80s˚F. I'll miss the lows for sleeping (several nights of 51˚F tied old records for the date) and I'm really not looking forward to tomorrow's predicted high of 90˚F, either. 

Ahhh, well…Ohio's weather has always been fickle, no matter what the season. Change is our only constant. But it gives us something to gripe about. Which can be important when you're trying to decided whether to wear a heavy sweater or sleeveless tee in late-July.

The turtle clan will certainly enjoy the warmer weather. When daytime temperatures struggled to rise above the low 60s˚F, the larger rocks in the Cottage Pool were conspicuously vacant. But yesterday, the first day we've hit the 80˚F mark in a while, they were back out in force—painted, softshells, snappers—basking in the sun.

One man's swelter is a turtle's bliss.

   _________
          

Friday, July 18, 2014

SMALL OBSERVATIONS

For some of us, observing nature is a way of life—something we do without thought, as automatically as taking our next breath. It doesn't matter whether we're ambling along a sidewalk, driving along a city street, walking across a parking lot, downtown, uptown, in the suburbs, or sitting in the neighbor's back yard. We don't even have to be outside! I've watched plenty of birds and mice and a few other critters while pushing a cart around the snazziest supermarket, trekking about one of the big-box home improvement retailers, or sitting in the middle of a crowded mall, watching the endless passing of bag-laden shoppers.

Wildlife and wild things are everywhere—from sparrows flitting about ceiling gridwork, to a sprig of chamomile growing through a sidewalk crack. You don't have to hike into wilderness, stroll about a city park, or even take a drive in the country in order to see nature-in-motion.  

I'm still in the midst of our whole-house remodel, a long-term job that consumes practically every free minute when I'm not working on my columns. Free time to ramble woods and prairies has been nonexistent. I haven't been for even a brief a walk in two months, unless you count visits to Lowe's and Home Depot. Photographically, I've managed barely a handful of shots, mostly taken while accompanying Moon-the-Dog around on her peregrinations. 

But I've still noticed a few things I'd like to report. 

The first is a dandy little song sparrow [see pix above] who's been keeping me company while I prepare my materials. My outdoor work area is at the rear of the cottage. The pickup truck—loaded with sheets of plywood, 2x4s, various boards and trim pieces—is parked near the back door. My sawhorses are set up a few feet away—handy for offloading, as well as carting whatever I'm working on down the hallway.

As you might imagine, what with all the power sawing, drilling, sanding, routing, and hammering, it's a pretty noisy area. But the song sparrow doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he's gotten so tame he now sits within 5 or 6 feet of where I'm working, hopping about, rearing back to sing at the top of his lungs whenever the mood strikes. He's not even put off by the extended piercing howl of the circular saw. I find his company delightful.

Another workday companion is the large toad who apparently lives under the back door's 4x4 foot entryway deck. One minute I'll look and the deck is empty—the next, ol' toad will be sitting there, a nobby brown lump, benign and oddly Buddha-like, with alert gold eyes. This small wooden platform is located about 6 feet from where I'm working. I must step on it—and over the toad!—every time I enter and exit the hallway…a dozen or more times an hour, depending on what I'm measuring and fitting inside.

The third observation came inside, in the middle of the night. I'd finished building our new platform bed with storage underneath. We'd opened our king-sized memory-foam mattress from Bed-In-a-Box and were pleased by how it looked and fit. And now we were giving it the sleep test…well, Myladylove was, and I had been, until back pains drew me from my slumbers. Remodeling, with all its lifting, carrying, twisting, bending, and general body abuse is not the ideal activity for a man with a long history of severe back issues. But, if you want things to get done, you have to suck it up and push through the discomfort.

Sometimes, though, the pain wins. I'd gotten up with the intention of sitting in the recliner a while, and maybe popping a couple of extra-strength Tylenol—which is about as heavy duty as I go on pain meds, and that only rarely. 

Anyway, I was up, 3:00 a.m., shuffling down the hall, past the kitchen toward the great room…when I see these flashes. Multiple flashes, coming from every corner of the kitchen—ceiling,  walls, and atop the refrigerator. Lightening bugs! Maybe twenty or so, all intermittently winking their yellow-green tail-lamps.

How extraordinarily weird! Not weird because a few fireflies had found their way inside. We always seem to have at least one or two lightening bugs blinking around. They appear to be drawn to the cottage—though maybe it's just due to easy access. Because I generally keep the door open while I'm working outside so Moon can come and go as she pleases. 

And to tell you the truth, I enjoy seeing fireflies indoors. Especially when I'm hurting and can't sleep, I'm mildly comforted by their friendly flickering in the long darkness.

Still, it was weird how they'd all gathered in the kitchen. Why? 

After a moment's observation, I had the answer—though within it lies a bigger question along with a statement of how our evolving modern world can prove increasingly confusing to the love-life of such humble creatures as the lowly lightening bug. 

Myladylove had recently bought a small ice-maker to keep up with summer's hot-weather demands for cubes to cool our iced tea. She'd placed the little stainless steel unit on the corner of the kitchen counter. And the ice-maker's tiny, blinking ready light was a perfect match in size, brightness, and yellow-green hue, of a firefly's built-in signal lantern. 

Fireflies, as you probably know, do their courting via a series of flashed messages. Males query, females respond. A love-matching lightshow played out above the tall grass. Or in a cottage kitchen, when flummoxed by digital technology. 

Whatever come-hither tease line that blinking ice-maker was feeding to her suitors, she had them locked on point and flashing like the neon marquee above a Vegas casino! 

Can a lightening bug blow a fuse?

Worried, I did everyone a favor and unplugged the ice-maker.